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My Tale Of Orthodox Bells
By Lynn Betsanes

When Father Andrew told me we were getting bells for St. Luke Church was getting bells and the Handmaidens would ring them, something inside me sparked. Then I was asked to meet with Fr. Deacon John Suchernick on September 10, 2002, at St. Luke to learn how to ring these bells. I was very excited, until I realized I had to climb two ladders. (Good thing I was wearing sensible shoes!). Nevertheless, I overcame my fear of heights and ascended to the top of the bell tower.

The view from there grabbed my heart. When Dn. John began sharing stories and experiences, and we started ringing the bells, I knew I was supposed to do this. I went home still excited and researched "bells" online for hours until my brain was saturated.Although bells are some of the oldest man-made instruments, the Bible often speaks of cymbals. ("Praise Him with loud cymbals, praise Him with clashing cymbals!" -Psalm 150). Biblical cymbals resembled pitchers with a wide-open neck. They produced a strong sound when struck against each other. In Exodus 28:33-35 God orders Moses to put small, golden bells on the vestments of Aaron the High Priest so their sound could be heard as he ministered. [In the Orthodox Church small crotals (small, jingling metal pieces) adorn the vestments of Bishops].

Saint Paulinus of Nola in Italy first rang bells. By the ninth century even the smallest parish churches of the Roman Empire had them. In contrast, bell ringing spread slowly among early Eastern Orthodox Christians. They were accustomed to hearing the rhythmic clacking sound of semantrons, narrow hand-held wooden boards struck at various points by hammers. (Semantrons are still used today, especially in certain monasteries. -Ed.)

Bells eventually spread to traditionally Orthodox countries. Bells probably became popular in Russia because the wooden clacks of the semantron resembled sounds of everyday living (i.e., chopping wood, etc.). However, the sound of bells was uniquely recognizable and carried for long distances. Bells called people to something special-the church, the service of prayer, to God Himself. This was a welcome relief from the harsh realities of daily existence. Even if people couldn't get to the church, they could follow the service from afar with the help of the various ringing patterns of the bells.

Russian bells came to North America near the end of the 18th century. Russian traders established settlements in Alaska, missionaries arrived, and many Alaskan natives became Orthodox Christians. Then churches were built that incorporated Russian bells. So when St. Innocent traveled to Alaska he brought with him a priest, a deacon, a reader, and a bell ringer!

Bell ringing in the Orthodox Church is an important liturgical art form, like iconography or architecture. In fact, bells are called "singing icons." They are named, blessed and Chrismated in a special service. The Bishop or Priest asks God to bless each bell to the Glory of His holy Name. He asks that the voice of its peal will strengthen its hearers' piety and faith so that with courage and prayer they may oppose and overcome all slanders of the Devil. He also asks that the voices of the bells appease, calm and cease all destructive things of the air (winds, storms, etc.). He then prays, "O Lord our God, You not only use spiritual and living things for Your glory and for the salvation and use of Your faithful, but also inanimate thingsā€¦"

Russian bells are played as percussion instruments, like drums, not as melody makers. The bells are stationary with a free-swinging clapper or tongue and are rung in different ways for different occasions.

Blagovest-calls people, both living and departed, to major services. At St. Luke, blagovest involves striking Luke, the largest bell, 12 times. (During Lent Eugene, the 2nd largest bell, is struck). During the Liturgy we ring blagovest at the beginning, between the Creed's twelve articles, at the Consecration, and at the closing.

Zvon-a rhythmic peal of bells. A double peal and triple peal involve rhythmic playing, pausing, and repeating the pattern once or twice more.

Trevzon-used for the Liturgy and for times of joy, especially after Liturgy.

Perezvon-repeated striking of one bell only on Good Friday before the shroud is brought forth and on Holy Saturday at the Magnificat of Matins. In a chain perezvon each bell is individually struck several times, moving from the largest to the smallest bell. This large-to-small-bell pattern occurs during any blessing of water and symbolizes the self-emptying humility of Christ.

Perebor-the funeral (chain) toll, a slow striking of each bell from smallest to largest. (We rang this on September 11th when the police and fire brigade brought the World Trade Center beam into our Church). This symbolizes the Christian ascent from birth to maturity. As perebor ends, all the bells are rung simultaneously to signify death.

According to Dn. John bell sounds carry as far as a person in the bell tower can see. That was so empowering to me because bell ringing spreads the walls of our church far beyond the bricks! We never know who hears our bells and how it affects people or their lives. So we must ring our bells for everyone, not just for us. (The sound of the bells should bring peace and comfort to a person. If they cause agitation, the person may have some serious spiritual issues).

Dn. John told me about a woman who insisted on going to the nearby Orthodox Church. Her husband was in a coma and dying in a local health facility. At midnight on Pascha, the bells started proclaiming, "Christ Is Risen!" He sat up in bed, opened his eyes, and said, "Do you hear that beautiful sound? They are calling me home!" Then he peacefully died. She said she had to see the place from where the bell ringing originated.

When I talk to people about St Luke, and I often do, they always ask, "Where is your church?" When I state the location, they say, "Oh yeah, church hill. I've been sledding there!" Before I started ringing the bells at St. Luke, I had been praying to God for direction in my service to the Church. That's why I felt such assurance when I first struck them. I now know that I'm supposed to help spread knowledge of our church, not for its great sledding hill, but for the voices of its beautiful Orthodox bells.

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